Gilmore says issues still to be addressed on water charges
Cabinet fails to agree on deal as householders to face annual bill of €240
The annual standing charge for water will be €50 per house, or less, with the average yearly bill expected to come in below €300, The Irish Times has learned After years of austerity, water charges are the last big ticket item of painful adjustment
The Cabinet finished its special meeting on water charges this morning without reaching agreement.
Minister for Environment Phil Hogan will work on the proposals and come back with updated plans at the next Cabinet after the Easter break.
Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore said the Government still needs to address a number of issues before a final decision is reached. “I think it’s important that we get the decision right. This is obviously a very major decision that the Government has to make,” Mr Gilmore said in Dublin.
“There are issues that clearly have to be addressed before a decision is made. And they include issues around ability to pay, issues around what happens in the case of households that will be metered because clearly the metering will not be completed until the end of the year,” he added.
He also hit out at leaks to the media about the potential extent of water charges. “I think it’s never helpful that issues that have to be discussed by the Government are trawled in the media in advance.”
The Labour Party earlier indicated it would not sign off on a final plan for water charges at the meeting. Sources within the Labour Party said there was “acute dissatisfaction within the party at what is seen as an attempt by Fine Gael to railroad the charges through Cabinet today.
This has been cast by Labour figures as “the most serious disagreement yet” between the parties.
Another Labour source said Fine Gael has not thought the proposal through. “The thing is half-baked, they have not thought through details of key issues like metering, standing charge, ability to pay, pensioners, conservation. It would not survive public scrutiny if left out in its current form.”
The source said Fine Gael has been blinded “to a lack of detail on critical issues”.
The talks this morning follow a long discussion at Cabinet yesterday on a perceived sense of drift within the Government, which has been on the back foot over several contentious issues since the start of the year.
Speaking in the Dáil after the Cabinet meeting,Taoiseach Enda Kenny suggested an average annual water charge of €240. The Government proposals would also include an annual standing charge of less than €50.
There was no clarity this morning on the specific concerns Labour has with the approach to charges expected to be outlined by Mr Hogan.
However, a Labour spokeswoman said the approach favoured by Mr Hogan had not been passed through the Economic Management Council, the four member economic committee at the heart of Government which comprises Mr Kenny, Mr Gilmore, Minister for Finance Michael Noonan and Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin.
There have been continuing discussions across Government on water charges, including at EMC level. However, one source claimed “heavy discussions” had only taken place in recent weeks with Labour claiming they hadn’t agreed anything with Fine Gael.
On his way into Cabinet this morning, Mr Howlin said it was not guaranteed there will be agreement on the charges today.
Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney said the Government was anxious to bring “clarity” to the public on a number of issues surrounding water charges.
“It’s no secret that the Government is bringing in a pretty radical reform of how we deliver water into households and businesses to try and reduce the cost of it to the country,” Mr Coveney said on his way into the meeting. “We’re spending about €1.2bn as a country on water each year and I think that can come down significantly.
“We’re moving towards a system that makes sense whereby the people who use the most water pay the most for it.
“ I think people understand that that’s a fair approach and today is a discussion to try and bring some clarity to the level of water charges that people can expect, if there’s going to be a standing charge or not,” he said. “But I can’t give you any figures until we have a conversation as a government.”
Asked about allowances for people who may be sick, he said: “Everything we do needs to have a fairness element to it.
“Of course there’s going to be some consideration for people who are in circumstances where they have to use an awful lot of water because they have a medical condition or whatever,” said Mr Coveney. “That’s why you need a government to make sensible political decisions around the implementation of a water policy as well as the economic considerations.”
The free water allowance provided to children will be more than double that for adults under the Government’s plans for water metering, according to senior Government sources. They said this was designed to ease the burden on families, especially those with teenagers.
The annual standing charge applied to all households will not be based on a percentage of water used but will be fixed at a specific value for all homes, which sources last night said would be €50 or under. There will be no connection charge.